SMXL 2019 Milan Keynote


This is a talk I gave at the SMXL 2019 Conference in Milan. My take on talks and presentations is that the deck I use is there to supplement what I say rather than replace me, otherwise I may as well just mail the deck in and stay at home and enjoy the sunshine. This, however, creates the bind that what when I share the deck afterwards it is a tantalizing tale of hints and signs that leave my greater audience struggling to make sense of.

So, here is an experiment. I improvise a lot on my talks so this is not going to be verbatim what I said on the day and the Q & A session is obviously not going to be included which is a shame because the Milan audience was brilliant and the questions were excellent. It is however the gist of what I said recreated from memory a day later.

It will give you a flavor of the day since you weren’t there and, obviously, I am dying to hear your own thoughts and comments so don’t be shy, include them below.

My talk was on Link building. The SEO industry is built on links and link-building. Those not offering link-building services at some point obsess on how to get links. Link-acquisition drives so much of the industry’s behavior that there is barely a conversation to be had on search and search engines without links and link building creeping in at some point.

I give a lot of talks and since 2010 when I started to travel internationally, I’ve given hundreds of talks and presentations on search, search marketing, social media and social media marketing. If you take into account online interviews, webinars and livestreamed presentations my talks probably number in the thousands. In all that time the number of times I’ve spoken about link-building is, precisely, zero.

This is not because I don’t think links are important. I understand that they are at the core of semantic search and that whether we like it or not we live in an online link economy. But link-building is a transactional activity. Transactional activities are a quid-pro-quo affair where you have to offer someone something of value in order to get something of value in return. In terms of link-building you will have to offer an exchange of links, perhaps, an offer to pay (if you’re placing a link) or some other exchange of an equal perceived value to the person you’re talking to.

As such, link-building in this fashion is not sustainable. It costs too much time, too much money and it provides questionable returns. Even if it is successful in the short term by allowing a website to acquire some high-value links, in the long term it will provide ever diminishing returns as high-value real-estate on the web that is willing to link back is naturally exhausted or is closed to a link request because a competitor got there first. This will then mean that link-building then has to resort to building lower-quality links, many of which may either do harm to a website or, at best, offer little value for the time and effort and any cost that has been invested.

This inevitable phase of the link-building trajectory then results in the kind of activity that leads to many of us receiving emails like this one that is offering to build links to my website for a monthly fee and emails like this one which is trying to entice me to buy its link-building service by naming some high value web real estate where links to my website will appear.

There is an alternative, of course, otherwise there would be no point to my presentation. But before we get to that it’s worth casting a look at the state of search and its focus on links. In 2017 at the Brighton SEO conference Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, Gary Illyes, said, in his own inimitable way, that if your website is seen across the social web. If the sentiment cloud associated with it is positive you’re then doing OK.
Duane Forrester who used to be senior product manager at Bing, said pretty much the same thing at the SMX West conference, in 2016.

That same year, at a Search Engine Land conference, Andrey Lipattsev who is a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, said that when it comes to ranking a website Google looks at three distinct (and in retrospect entirely obvious) things:

  • Links
  • Content
  • Rankbrain

Rankbrain is a machine learning algorithm that rewrites poorly-understood search queries for search so that Google’s search engine can better understand meaning and intent in some queries that are hard for it to understand. Rankbrain introduces its own complexities and it is outside the scope of this talk so I will focus, instead on the two things that are pertinent and which we can control: Links and Content.

In their entirety, the comments of Illyes, Forrester and Lipatsev suggest that in an ideal world, theoretically, a website that has zero budget to link-build, has no available manpower to link-build and maybe, even, is pretty bad at building links, should still do pretty well for itself and rank high in search if its content is compelling enough and good enough for it to have a strong digital footprint across the social web and the sentiment graph.

I have a case study to share to that effect. This is the home page of The web’s pre-eminent, free fitness resource. The site has tens of thousands of pages with workouts, fitness programs, science-backed articles with research findings, food recipes, meal plans and so on. It is funded entirely through donations and has a team of between ten and twelve volunteers that help run it. For the last three years the SEO, search marketing, brand ambassador and on-page optimization job has been done by just one person. It’s been done, really really badly. I know that, because that one person is me.

The work I do for the website is so diverse and I have so little time to devote to it that there are still 100, maybe 200 pages that consist of an image with a couple of lines of text. No description, no metadata and no structured data. The site has zero link-building activity, zero link-building outreach and zero budget for links. Yet, despite this a rudimentary analysis shows that the site is not doing badly at all when it comes to links.

Looking a little deeper in some of those links throws up this page of Wikipedia that explains what a Burpee is. As an aside a Burpee is a brilliant exercise that targets the whole body and helps boost cardiovascular and aerobic performance. If you have never tried it I highly recommend it. Anyway, getting back to link building, going down to the sources of the page we see that there are two references and links that point to So Wikipedia, is linking to as an authoritative source on the exercise called Burpees.

I drilled down to the pages that Wikipedia links to. Here’s one and there is the other. They consist of a video in each case. By the way that is Darebee’s founder, Neila Rey, illustrating how to perform a Burpee. Anyway, as you can see the pages themselves consist of a single video file. No metatags, no description, no headers. Each video is barely 10 seconds long. They have, of course, been widely shared across the web and on YouTube each video has well over 100,000 views. So, the social component, digital footprint and brand sentiment around each of these is pretty much along the lines suggested by Illyes, Forrester and Lipattsev.

What can we learn from this? Is there a secret recipe we can take away and apply to a small website that is struggling to build links, has no budget or manpower but still needs links in order to rank in search? Yes, definitely there is.

Like the best recipes this one has just three short steps. Just like the best recipes none of the three short steps is an easy one to apply. It consists of three elements that in retrospect appear blindingly obvious:

First, content. You’ll think, yeah that is obvious. I need brilliant content. But you don’t. You need content that works for your audience. Remember Darebee’s content that won it two links from Wikipedia, amongst, I suspect, dozens and dozens of other websites and hundreds of thousands of views and social media platform shares consists of two very short videos with no explanation. It just works.

Second, Trust. Trust is key for any relational exchange to take place. How we gain that trust revolves around four stages: Contact, Perception, Assessment and Connection. Darebee, to keep using that example, is everywhere. It has a strong presence on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. It understands the expectations of those who come to it and works hard to exceed them. It does all this through content (the first of the three steps). But it uses the third step, which we are going to look at now, to help it succeed.

The third step is empathy. You will think of empathy as that hippy, huggy-feely thing. But it isn’t. From a neuroscientific perspective empathy is designed to help the brain do the one thing, the only thing the brain is designed to do: Accurately predict what is going to happen in the next moment. Everything we see around us, the social constructs, the laws, societies, rules, regulations, countries, all that complexity is the result of that simple rule.

If we know what is going to happen next we can then accurately predict intent. We can understand need. We then know what to do in order to meet it. That’s the end goal of marketing, search, SEO, branding, you name it. To get there, the brain uses empathy. The neuroscientific definition of empathy is the brain’s ability to feel what others feel so it can understand their motivation.

Understanding their motivation it can better predict their actions.

Content that is created from an empathic point of view never focuses on us. It always focuses on the audience we address in the most direct, most functional way possible. That kind of content helps generate a sense of trust. You can see how the three steps are not sequential. They are interlinked. One informs the other. You may have to start from the third before you get to the first. Do that however and what you end with is link-building activity that is sustainable because you’re not actively link-building. Link-building is an activity designed to serve you. Creating content using those three steps is an activity that serves your audience. This raises the bar in content creation by changing the way we think about content, links and the audience we serve. That in turn changes everything.

Thank you!